Four months after a derecho hit rural Ottawa, farmers still struggle

The province says the region doesn’t qualify for disaster aid and that insurance will cover the damage, but there’s been little or no money paid out

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Farmers in the rural east end of Ottawa who were hard hit by last spring’s derecho are caught in a bizarre Catch-22.

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The province says they don’t qualify for disaster aid because they are covered by insurance. Yet many say they have seen little or no insurance money. Now they’re headed into winter with daylight showing through their barn roofs and no place to store their crops.

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“There has been massive damage and it will only get worse,” said Chris Nooyen.

Nooyen and brothers Matt and Mike are third-generation farmers, operating farms in Navan, Vars and Embrun with their father, John. The family and their eight employees grow crops on 1,300 acres, milk 450 cows and run a respected breeding operation.

The derecho pounded the farm in Navan on May 21. The wind tore one concrete silo in half, which toppled and crushed part of the barn. Another silo had the top shorn off.  Part of the roof of another portion of the barn was ripped away. About two dozen of the 110 cows in the barn were so rattled by the storm they later had to be sold.

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Nooyen has no estimate of exactly how much it will cost to repair all the damage. But it’s in the millions, he said.

“It’s our livelihood. It’s our livelihood and it’s also where we live.”

Nooyen said he last sat down with his insurance broker in April and went line-by-line through the policy. “We know we’re covered,” he said.

He saw an insurance adjuster three days after the storm. But four months later, the family is still waiting for the money to repair the barn and other buildings and their contents. While the damage to farmhouses have been repaired, the barn remained open to the elements all summer. Rain has flooded it, the electrical system has been turned off.

The roof of Matt Nooyen’s barn was damaged. He was able to use a tarp to cover part of it but has no idea when it can be repaired.
The roof of Matt Nooyen’s barn was damaged. He was able to use a tarp to cover part of it but has no idea when it can be repaired. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

For a farmer, the worst-case scenario is a catastrophic fire. But that only affects one farmer. In this case, almost every farm in the neighbourhood has had buildings that were damaged or destroyed and woodlots that were splintered.

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Sarsfield farmer Wendell Watson said the derecho destroyed two large sheds used to store farm equipment and uprooted the trees in his maple sugar bush.

“The noise was unbelievable. I have never heard anything like it before,” he said. “It picked up one shed and put it in the field at the other side of the road. It just lifted it up like an airplane.”

Watson’s family has lived in the area for some 200 years, and tapped the maples in the sugar bush for generations. The storm devastated almost all of the older maple trees.

“It will be 100 years before it comes back. There are big holes in the ground, like graves,” said Watson.

David Spence said he and his neighbours spent all summer cleaning up nails, boards and chunks of metal roofing from their pastures so cattle wouldn’t be injured. He has not seen any insurance money or even an estimate for what it will cost to repair the barn that houses 30 cows and 27 calves.

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“Everyone else did the cleanup themselves. No one else was coming. We had to do something,” he said.

“We’re all in the same boat. Everyone has a story,” said Wyatt McWilliams. “The ice storm was bad. This is 100 times worse. It took me a lifetime to build up what I’ve got and lose it in two and a half minutes.”

Many in the hard-hit area are awaiting insurance claims or hoping for aid from the Disaster Recovery Assistance for Ontarians (DRAO), which provides assistance to homeowners, tenants, small businesses, non-profits and farms.

But DRAO also has a catch: The province has to specifically designate the jurisdictions that qualify for aid. So far, the only one to be designated is Uxbridge, about midway between Oshawa and Lake Simcoe.

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According to the spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, assessment teams sent by the province found that most damage to homes and businesses in Ottawa were insured, or that it was tree damage that would not be eligible under the DRAO program.

That has farmers scratching their heads. Matt Nooyen said as far as he knows, no assessment team has seen the damage to his family’s farm.

On June 8, Ottawa city council approved a plan to write to the province requesting that Ottawa be designated for DRAO aid, but has not had a reply.

On Sept. 21, city councillors voted to press the province on the matter.

Coun. Catherine Kitts, whose Cumberland ward includes the farming communities hit by the derecho, has been frustrated and disappointed with the lack of response. For many people the storm came and went, but others in her ward are still cleaning up, she said.

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“Residents have learned that hard way that there are many costs outside of what insurance covers.”

She also doesn’t understand why DRAO has been activated for Uxbridge, but not Ottawa. “When I look at photos of Uxbridge, it looks very similar to what I’m seeing in my own community,” she said.

“We don’t want to get into a battle with Uxbridge. Good for Uxbridge for meeting the criteria,” said Mayor Jim Watson during the Sept. 21 council meeting.

“I think this will remind those folks at Queen’s Park that we deserve some consideration given the horrific situation so many people have had to deal with. I think it’s just a matter of fairness in terms of treating residents fairly, that they should be entitled to some assistance above and beyond what insurance provides.”

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Meanwhile, there’s another wrinkle for municipalities looking to access provincial aid. The Municipal Disaster Recovery Assistance (MDRA) program only applies when there has been an extraordinary municipal response and recovery costs of at least three per cent of a municipality’s own-purpose taxation. Although the city and Hydro Ottawa have projected they will spend about $50 million on derecho recovery by the end of the year, the city’s tax base is simply too large to qualify for aid.

In this file photo from May, 2022, James Campbell, owner of Campbell Farms in White Lake, surveys damage to a barn, built in 1909, that was being used as a wedding and event venue.
In this file photo from May, 2022, James Campbell, owner of Campbell Farms in White Lake, surveys damage to a barn, built in 1909, that was being used as a wedding and event venue. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

“Ottawa is a big sprawling municipality. (A disaster) can affect one area and another not at all. The formula does not work,” said Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans.

She points out that some residents in the urban parts of the city are also still struggling to get insurance payments to fund repairs and debris removal. Some roofs in her ward are still covered by tarps, she said.

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“There is extensive damage in Conroy Pit. It makes you want to cry.”

On Sept. 19, most of the city workers who had been working on the city’s cleanup projects were returned to their regular duties. But it’s not over yet for storm victims.  You don’t have to go far to hear how May 21 turned life upside down for farmers.

Matt Nooyen returned home early shortly after 3 p.m. on the day of the derecho. He took a photo of the sky, which had turned ominously black. There was a storm alert on his cell phone.

“I had a very uneasy feeling,” said Nooyen, who was driving his brother Mike’s truck and parked it, along with his wife’s SUV inside a coverall, a large metal frame structure covered with a tarp used to protect farm equipment from the elements. His wife Lianne, who was six months pregnant, was rounding up the chickens and returning them to their coops.

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Matt’s father, John, who lives about a kilometre away on the home farm, called to say the power was out. Matt decided to go to the farm to get the generator started in time for milking, which starts at 4 p.m. Matt, Lianne and their son, Colton, 3 , and daughter, Rielly, 1 1/2, all got into Matt’s truck.

“We looked behind us and we saw a big cloud of dust,” Matt said. There was a deluge of rain and the wind was strong enough to move the truck up and down as though trying to lift it off the ground. The 100-foot-long tarp that formed the roof of the coverall went flying past.

“I felt so helpless. I thought we were in a tornado. Both of the kids were screaming. I thought we were all going to die in the truck,” Matt recalled.

To this day, he has no idea how long it lasted or why they were not struck by flying debris. He backed up slowly until the family was close enough to the house to get inside and into the basement. When the storm abated, they felt safe enough to go upstairs and assess the damage.

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“Everything was gone,” said Matt.

Damage to a farm owned by Matt Nooyen, in the wake of the spring storm.
Damage to a farm owned by Matt Nooyen, in the wake of the spring storm. Photo by Nooyen family photo

The frame of the coverall had buckled and collapsed, both chicken coops were flipped and the childrens’ play structure was obliterated. The pond was filled with debris. A cedar gazebo had snapped like a pencil. Shingles had been stripped from the roof of the house and windows on one side were damaged. Lianne’s SUV and Mike’s truck had flipped over. The family’s three potbellied pigs were later located unharmed, but far from home.

Much worse was the damage to the barn at John Nooyen’s farm. By the time Matt got there, the fire trucks had already arrived. Besides the damage to the barn, a machine shed had blown away. Until crops are harvested,  it will be hard to know whether any machinery was damaged, said Matt. With the damage to the silos, crops will have to be stored in other facilities.

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The Nooyens were able to use the coverall tarp to cover part of the barn roof, but they are still waiting for the insurance money to repair the rest of the building. The remaining cows have been sent to the other barns for now.

Many farmers have sympathy for insurance companies trying to assess damage and find workers qualified to repair or build barns.

“It’s not always the insurance people. They have been overwhelmed because of the number of people who need help. We need the province to step up,” said McWIlliams.

“I’m not blaming the insurance company,” said Matt. “This is as unprecedented for them as it was for us. But if we don’t qualify for emergency aid, I don’t know who does.”

Farmers are also keenly aware that cold weather brings danger to their livestock and equipment.

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Wendell Watson put tarps over his farm equipment because there is no time to build new shed. “We don’t have time now. You can’t put something up overnight.”

In a statement, the Insurance Bureau of Canada said reimbursement times may vary, and the length of time to complete repairs depends on factors including the severity of the damage, the availability of contractors and supplies and securing building and demolition permits. Large-scale claims can be complex and they take time, said a spokesperson.

Matt Nooyen is hoping for a bridge from the province until the insurance money comes through.

“Farmers put food on people’s tables. We have businesses to run. Our margins are very small. We can’t afford to spend $50,000 or $60,00 to clean up after a derecho.”

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Insurance doesn’t pay for all of the damage, said Wendell Watson, who is hoping the province will step up. “We’re no different from the people in Uxbridge.”

Like many other farmers, Spence is also worried about the coming winter. The damaged portion of his barn is always full of hay in winter, so it acts as insulation while the body heat of the cattle keeps the barn warm.

“It remains to be seen if I can keep the water from freezing,” he said.

McWilliams ordered a coverall to protect his farm equipment in June. It has still not arrived. “Fall is coming and machinery is sitting outside. The next thing you know, the snow will be flying,” he said.

The storm has also taken a mental toll. “My son gets anxious every time he sees a dark cloud,” Matt said.

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